London Film Festival 2015: 'Suffragette'

Though frequently succumbing to obviousness, Sarah Gavron’s earnest drama is powerful and moving, and constitutes a solid start to the 2015 London Film Festival.


Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Romola Garai
US Release Date: 2014-10-23
UK Release Date: 2015-10-12

Clare Stewart, Artistic Director of the London Film Festival, has declared the Festival’s 2015 edition to be “the year of the strong woman”, citing Todd Haynes’s Carol and Kate Winslet “standing up to her idiosyncratic boss” in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs as examples. Moreover, the Festival also boasts an appearance from Geena Davis, who’s in town to talk about her Institute on Gender in Media, and to launch a Global Symposium on sexism in the film industry.

Actually, it might be argued that the real female-focused gems of this year’s London Film Festival are to be found deeper in the programme, and generally not in starry US cinema, either: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, Małgorzata Szumowska’s Body/Ciało and Laura Citarella’s Dog Lady are but three of many titles worth citing in this context. One would also hope that women -- “strong” or otherwise -- would be allowed more than just one cinematic year.

Still, Stewart and her team’s endeavour to highlight films focusing on female experience is doubtless well-intentioned, and it’s clearly evident in their choice of Opening Night movie for this year’s Festival: Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, which, as its rather blunt title announces, takes as its focus the Women’s Rights struggles in England in the early part of the 20th century.

At the movie’s centre is the consciousness-raising of a working-class woman, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker in Bethnal Green who’s always toed the line and who is, if anything, rather disgusted by the window-smashing, letter-box-bombing tactics of the Suffragettes. Events conspire to change Maud’s mind, however, and to show her how closely her own working and living conditions – barely recognised as oppressive up to now – are bound up in the wider struggle for the vote.

From its title onwards, the main shortcoming of Suffragette is obviousness. Abi Morgan’s script tends to treat the audience as hopelessly naïve, as if they've never heard anything about women’s suffrage before, and the movie is so dogged and single-minded in its approach that there’s barely a scene that doesn’t relate to that main topic. The whole tone of the publicity – plus the chic “I’d Rather Be a Rebel Than a Slave” T-Shirts that the cast have, controversially, been sporting – implies that suffrage has never been the subject of dramatic representation before, when works as diverse as Henry James’s great novel The Bostonians, the BBC TV series Shoulder to Shoulder and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s National Theatre play Her Naked Skin are just some of the examples that spring to mind.

Despite the spelling-it-out obviousness to which Suffragette succumbs, however, the movie is still an affecting and engaging piece of work. As she proved in her excellent (and underrated) adaptation of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2007) Gavron is a director of talent and intelligence, and she brings a sensitive approach to intimate scenes here that undercuts the weaker, more contrived elements of Morgan’s writing. Though there’s a crudeness to aspects of the factory scenes (did Maud’s boss really have to be a sexual predator as well as an economic exploiter?), the film scores in its attention to labour, showing with great sympathy the punishing work that the women have to do, for little financial reward. (One of the movie’s first, eloquent images is of a factory-worker’s sweat-stained back.)

These scenes find their echo in the later sequences documenting the women’s incarceration in prison, where the brutality of their treatment is not shied away from (while managing to avoid Midnight Express-style masochism). Still, the movie’s most moving moment comes early. Mulligan’s Maud, called in as an impromptu replacement to give testimony in front of David Lloyd George, recounts her work history, and that of her mother, with a simple directness that’s heartbreaking.

After her disappointing turn as Bathsheba in Thomas Vinterberg’s limp Far From the Madding Crowd adaptation, it’s great to see Mulligan once again proving her resources here with a terrific performance as a woman finding her voice, and paying a high price for it. The (overly-brisk) storytelling requires Maud to go through these changes a bit too quickly, but Mulligan modulates her performance skilfully, bringing conviction to the transitions, and inhabiting the character with grit and grace.

The other roles -- including Ben Whishaw as Maud’s spouse (whom the movie is a bit casual about in turning him from uncomprehending and unsupportive to plain villainous), Anne-Marie Duff’s plucky co-worker, Romola Garai’s politician’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter’s militant Edith New -- aren’t all drawn with the depth and richness that might have been hoped for, and Meryl Streep’s queenly cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst feels totally fake. Streep’s scene also has a horrible, reverential undertone. Perched Evita-style on a balcony as she delivers her rabble-rousing address, Streep doesn’t convince as Pankhurst: rather, she looks every inch the American icon to whom the over-awed English actors have come to pay homage.

Such missteps -- plus some crude tension-ratcheting as the movie works towards its climax at, yes, the 1913 Epsom Derby -- don’t do Suffragette any favours and, in its character portrayals, the movie has none of the richness and nuance of The Bostonians, say. Nevertheless, and complete with a final title that more than justifies the movie’s contemporary relevance, there are enough potent elements here to make Suffragette a stirring and moving experience overall.


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